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17/03/17 15:16:29


Last week, Wednesday 8th March was International Women’s Day 2017. The hashtag of the campaign for 2017 was #BeBoldForChange; the call was “to help forge a better working world” – a more inclusive, gender equal world. It was a timely reminder that despite the great advances in the life and work conditions for women over the past few decades, there’s still a long way to go towards a more accepting, inclusive and equal world. And there’s still a long way to go for women within Judaism and especially within Orthodoxy and the Modern Orthodox movement. On the Jewish calendar the timing couldn’t have been better – Wednesday night was the eve of the Fast of Esther, a day that draws our attention to a charismatic and compelling woman, the singular regent of the Persian Empire – Queen Esther. A few days later we read her story in the only book in the Torah which not only has a woman as its central heroine, but is also named after a woman.

Esther was a woman bold for change. She becomes queen in a highly patriarchal, authoritarian society at a time when women are treated as secondary. Vashti, her predecessor is deposed because she dared to defy the King’s decree. In some ways Vashti paves the way for Esther’s more subtle and strategic defiance of King Achashverosh. Vashti refused to be objectified, to appear before the king and his drunken suitors at their wild orgy. He is incensed by her refusal, his own loss of control and influenced by his fawning courtiers, issues one of the most impetuous royal decrees on record:

“The King’s decree which he shall proclaim … all the wives will show respect for their husbands, great and small alike”

Rav Soloveitchik has acerbically noted how this decree highlights the impotence and foolishness of Achashverosh: just exactly how do you enact and enforce a decree like this even if you live in a totalitarian regime and have an army of informants? “No legislation is capable of regulating the intimate relationship of husband and wife”.

The beauty competition to find a replacement for Vashti highlights the patriarchal Persian Society, and its obsession with the pursuit of pleasure. Esther enters into this “stately pleasure dome” with an astonishing sense of dignity and restraint. She is not awed by the allure of its hedonism nor is she swayed by the excess of its materialism. She declines the offers of special beauty treatment and distances herself from the ugly competiveness of her fellow prisoners of the King’s harem. She is singular in her determination to be herself and this is undoubtedly the secret of her success and attractiveness to the King. She is no sweet obedient woman, no Stepford wife or queen. Ester acts with a stunning combination of stealth and subtlety, charm and incisiveness to save her people, change the mind of the King and claim the destiny that Mordechai had challenged her to accept. [“And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this you attained the royal position” (4:14)]. She may accept the challenge of Mordechai but she doesn’t meekly accept his suggestion of how to win over the King. She reads the political climate, recognises the incredibly powerful position of Haman and sets out to undermine it and help the King see that Haman was no special friend or protector but in fact a man driven by narcissism and energised by his own greed and need for control.

Esther’s beauty springs from deep within; a compelling charisma, a spiritual authenticity. She is, in short, a woman who is different from any other whom Achashverosh encounters; she is truly herself. We aren’t told if she transformed the way women were perceived in Persian society or the way they saw themselves, but she was surely a force for change and perhaps even helped forge a better deal for the woman encaged in the harem and imprisoned in the patriarchal Persian Society. (These women of the harem are surely the “chained” agunot of their generation). In this sense Esther holds a banner for women today, a banner proclaiming that they can break glass ceilings, claim an equal share in society. To be sure, Judaism recognises that women are not identical to men and do some things better than men. It does, however, also recognise that women are just as capable of men of learning and teaching Torah.

This is the strength of Modern Orthodoxy: there is a wealth of Haskafic (philosophical) and Halachik (legal) sources to bolster the view that women can and should be leaders in Jewish religious life. We shouldn’t be deterred by contrary views; we shouldn’t be afraid of the strength of women. This was part of the failure of Achashverosh’s advisors; for them the power of women was to be feared and fought: They urge the King to depose Vashti “for this deed of the Queen will come to the attention of all women, making their husband’s contemptible in their eyes” (1:17).

Our Scholar in Residence this Shabbat, the celebrated and storied Rav Shlomo Riskin, is a man known for his support of the empowerment of women within Orthodoxy. He not only champions women’s learning, he facilitates it through his Ohr Torah institutions. These strong independent learners, teachers, decision makers and decisors of Torah and Jewish law are making their mark across the Jewish world. Rabbi Riskin has been fearless for change, these women are courageous for change. Let us too be bold for and embrace the change!

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Tue, 14 July 2020 22 Tammuz 5780